by Gary Draper
GENNI GUNN`s Thrice Upon a Time (Quarry, 229 pages, $12.9 5 paper) is a kaleidoscope of a book with three main narrative lines, told from several points of view, and employing a variety of forms. At the novel`s centre is Elise Slayte, who is both literally and figuratively an elusive character. Literally, she is being sought by the police in connection with a baby found abandoned in a canoe. And as her own story unfolds, we learn that she is an adopted child who is trying to recreate her family history in a way that makes sense of the patterns of her life. Her ancestral reconstructions focus on two women, her great-grandmother Catherine Stewart, and her great -great -grandmother, Laura Browler.
The story of Laura, a mail-order bride in the Klondike gold rush, her troubled, brutal husband, Henry Stewart, and Jake, her lover, is the strongest in the book. Gunn does a wonderful job of summoning up the tenor of their unhappy relationship and its harsh setting. Each of the three narratives echoes the other two. The story Of Catherine, her husband, Philip, and her lover, Nathaniel, is the least effective, primarily because the men in Catherine`s life are Much less substantial than the mean-spirited Henry. The men in Elise`, life are David, who is drawn with some real feeling, and Marc, who is as ephemeral as the ghostly Nathaniel. Serving as a kind of template for all three stories is an Indian legend that Elise may or may not have invented, telling of descent into the underworld, love, sex, death, and abandonment.
The novel uses first-person narration, journal entries, letters, and poems, and Gunn handles the mixture of forms with confidence, though the poem,, seemed oddly flat, and often prolix. In her prose, Gunn demonstrates an Occasional tin ear ("It takes a few drinks to dullen the swarm of malaise") and an occasional grace of phrasing far more poetic than the poems themselves ("I have been leaving him so long I have forgotten I`m still here.").
Many postmodern devices are, by their very nature, intrusive arid distancing. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting for the reader to he taken out of a story as trong as Laura`s and subjected to Elise`s speculations on the personalities and actions of her characters. Occasionally, too, the pace falters. But in spite of its faults, Thrice Upon a Time (surely there`s a better title for this book!) is impressive in both craft and complexity. For all its apparent premeditation and its sometimes intrusive formal experimentation, it is often deeply engaging; for all its apparent disorder, it is highly controlled. Genni Gunn has written a very ambitious first novel, which succeeds more often than it fails.
A Feast of Ashes (Oberon, 220 pages, $15.95 paper), by Fred Colwell, is every bit as ambitious, without being nearly as readable. The central figures here are Christiane Vogel, a Jungian analyst who has largely suppressed her memories of childhood in the Third Reich, and her newest client, a Czechoslovakian Jew named Jan Nadelman. Together they embark on an exploration of their intersecting pasts, a journey that leads Jan back into the horrors of internment at Bergen-Belsen and Christiane into the firestorm of Dresden.
The book alternates between passages Of cultural and family history, which have a powerfully sedative effect, and passages of horror so searing that it is sometimes hard to focus on the page. I found myself troubled by both modes. The debate over whether it is ethical to use the horrors of the Holocaust for fictional ends is already familiar. And when Colwell held my attention fully, it was as much because of the sensational nature of the material a`s his skill as a writer. On the other hand, Colwell brings so much information to bear on the lives of Christiane`s parents and their circle that I felt sorry that I couldn`t enjoy their story more. His prose is often stilted and artificial, and characters converse as if they were reading to each other from essays on history, or art, Or the meaning of life. Dialogue too often fails to further the reader`s understanding of the characters who are speaking. I felt at times as if Colwell were including information simply because he had it and hated to leave it out.
The story is overwhelmed sometimes by obtrusive symbolism (as when the young Christiane swims to Carl Jung`s home to tell him the story of her childhood), sometimes by the weight of history (as when Christiane`s mother spends an evening -- and a very long evening it seemed -talking to Richard Strauss about art). There are also problems of credibility. I was unconvinced, for example, by the notion of conducting analysis as "a duet," in which the analyst strongly directs her client, and talks more about her past than he does about his own.
Yet the novel is not without strengths. Young Christiane`s experience of the bombing of Dresden is inventively and vividly told. The novel is exceptionally adventurous in its attempt to understand and explore the horrors of those years. if, in the end, Colwell`s reach exceeds his grasp, lie is to be congratulated nonetheless on the ambitious nature of his project. I hope that in his next novel he will keep the reader more in mind, pay more attention to pacing and structure, and, above all, depend a little less on his brain, and a little more on his heart.
WaIter Stewart`s Right Church, Wrong Pew (Macmillan, 213 pages, $19.95 cloth) opens, promisingly enough, with a body on the doorstep. Along the way to discovering how it got there, the reader is served up a zooful of small-town eccentrics, a whole sack of intriguing if improbable events, and a creditable number of laughs. This is, in its very different way from Gunn`s and Colwell`s, an ambitious book. Stewart`s ambition is to entertain, which is never as easy as it looks; like Gunn, he is successful more often than not.
For one thing, despite some outrageous improbabilities and plot devices that creak like floorboards in a haunted house, the book is, for the most part, a genuine page-turner, with some real Perils of Pauline chapter endings. Moreover, Stewart is certainly better at pacing than either Gunn or Colwell. The tone is breezy and bantering throughout, and sometimes genuinely funny. Much of the burnout depends on the character of the narrator, Carlton Withers, a small-town reporter, who is the chief suspect in the crime (it was, of course, his doorstep on which the body materialized). Carlton is prim, prissy, and pathologically shy with women. He can he thick-headed to the point where living alone seems dangerous, and he is (unfortunately) given to cute, old- fashioned expressions like "codswallop," "fiddlesticks," and "criminy." At times he descends to the status of a simple-minded caricature, whom Stewart uses simply to evoke a laugh. Nonetheless, he gets off a few good lines, heightened with a sting of wit or self directed irony. I liked, for example, his response to finding in his bed a woman he had rather not: "Such a pleasant surprise to find you here. Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Cigarette? Directions home?"
Carlton`s relationship with Klovack, the big-city photographer with whom he will obviously fall in love, is straight from screwball comedy, with its attraction of opposites, its unlikeliness, and some very funny confusion at the outset. Subtlety is not what Stewart is aiming for, nor, for the most part, is satire, but there are some little zingers along the way. Right Church, Wrong Pew is not high art. On the other hand, it doesn`t set out to be. It sets out to be a good read, and it pretty much gets there.
In Light of Chaos (Thistledown, 125 pages, $14.95 paper), by Bela Szabados, is described by its publisher as "an autobiographical novel." Without knowing the author, of course, it`s impossible to say where autobiography ends and fiction kicks in, but it has the feel of largely untransmuted experience. The story is told in the first person, by a narrator who shares the author`s name and as much of his life experience as can be gleaned from the publisher`s press release. It is, to say the least, a story filled with interesting events. The hero grows up in post-war Hungary, his life disrupted by the death of his father and the Soviet occupation. Eventually, he flees with his family to Austria, and subsequently to Canada.
Szabados aims to show the reader how these experiences are perceived by the young Bela, and he also manages to capture something of the child`s inner life. A recurring theme, for example, is the boys commitment to each new cause that holds some promise of making sense of his life: gymnastics, swimming, the study of languages, patriotism.
There are some wonderful stories here, and Szabados tells them in a dry, almost uninflected voice. He is, as the character Bela says of himself, very much the observer, and he reports on his own experiences almost as if they were happening to someone else. He is neither cruel nor over-generous to his young self, but simply a clear-eyed reporter. Bela`s loss of his new soccer ball, his first sexual experience, his meeting with his father who has just returned from imprisonment, and his escape from the camp for young communists are among the many memorable fragments. I say "fragments" because Szabados has chosen to tell the story in numbered paragraphs, most of which stand alone as discrete episodes. While this allows the author to shape a number of brief, gem-like individual pieces, it also works against both narrative momentum and depth. The story fails to Cumulate in power; the reader is always drawn back to square one. Szabados has also chosen to tell the story entirely in the present tense. This permits him to develop a kind of movie-like, unfolding quality, but it also works against reflection and, again, depth. As a result, the book does not deliver what its powerful content might have allowed. I was interested much of the time, but seldom engaged. The author seems, by his choice of form, to want to keep the reader at arm`s length.
Toni (Guernica, 95 pages, $10.00 paper), by Fiorella De Luca Calce, is a slim morality rate set in the streets of Montreal. It is a brash, angry book, which, try as I might, I found myself unable to like. Its central figures are Toni and Marco, members of a household of troubled teenagers driven from home by a variety of nasty parents. Toni`s mother, for instance, seems to be the cause of her son`s suicide as well as of the estrangement of Toni and, later, her father. When Toni returns home to try to heal the breach, her mother meets her at the door with "Toni doesn`t live here any more." Marco, the product of an even more troubled home life, is every inch the punk- saint, the tough guy with a heart of gold who tries to reconcile his disciples with their undeserving families. These cliches of characterization are matched by cliches of both language and action. After Toni has struck out on her own, for example, she is saved from gang rape by the arrival of Marco, an event as coincidental and incredible as any of the Lone Ranger`s nick-of time appearances. As for cliches of language, when Toni sizes up the scene where she will almost be raped, she says, "The streets were dirty and deserted, the alley quiet, too quiet."
The story is told in a highly stylized, staccato monotone that frequently eschews the first-person pronoun and truncates sentences in a manner that is no doubt intended to be hard-boiled, but which in the end is merely tedious. It may be that De Luca Calce has some experience of this brutal life. If so, I hope she will take another shot at writing about it: the world she seeks to convey surely exists, and we need to understand it. In this book, unfortunately, that world is not brought effectively or convincingly to life.